Travel

Why Chef Kristen Kish Is Scaling Panamanian Waterfalls in Search of Watercress

The host of NatGeo's ‘Restaurants at the End of the World' dishes on what it takes to run a restaurant off the grid.

National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen
National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen
National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen

In Restaurants at the End of the World, which premiered March 21 on Nat Geo, celebrity chef Kristen Kish travels to remote locales in search of chefs who embody the farm-to-table ethos in the truest sense-chefs who are not merely hopping on a culinary bandwagon, but rather, the thrill of allowing themselves no other choice. If supply chain issues were ever a plight in the mainland, they become a class of their own once you venture off the grid. These kitchen adventurers set up shop deep in the wild, from the cloud forests of Panama to the northernmost regions of Norway, creatively adapting to Mother Nature’s ever-changing menu.

Kish, in her relatable hilarity, is game to join these chefs in their quests to get as close to the source as possible. The Top Chef star scales waterfalls to forage fresh watercress, dodges polar bears while diving for fish, and digs into muddy mangroves to harvest Brazilian bivalves. It’s a lesson in operating without fear, as these chefs never quite know what any given outcome might be. But the meals always turn out to be just as bold and daring as their hard-won ingredients, accented by inventive dishes like chayote ceviche, reindeer tongue pastrami, and seaweed-topped custard.

In honour of the show’s release, Thrillist spoke with Kish about the allure of far-flung restaurants, intense food-sourcing feats, and what drives her love for all things travel.

Thrillist: From a consumer perspective, what’s the appeal of hopping on a boat or hiking up a mountain to dine at a remote restaurant?
Kristen Kish: For much of my upbringing, dining was just going out to eat. You went to a restaurant that was either known or not known, and you went because you needed to feed yourself. But now, as we’re exposed to so many different kinds of restaurants, the dining experience doesn’t just start and end with the food. It starts with making the decision to go, why you’re going, what the occasion might be. I’m interested in a full story-I love going out to dinner, but sometimes I need a little bit more. Restaurants at the End of the World is obviously taking that to the extreme.

The journey starts at the beginning of the trek to get there. That gives you insight into who these chefs are, the challenges that they might face, and then, ultimately, what kind of food they may be serving. It’s a good human experience to understand what kind of people actually do this, how they survive, and how they manage a restaurant, because we’re all used to restaurants being set up to be efficient and profitable and make the most sense. These people have a phenomenal story to tell.

National Geographic for Disney/Missy Bania
National Geographic for Disney/Missy Bania
National Geographic for Disney/Missy Bania

What’s the impetus for chefs to open up such restaurants? Is it simply an attraction to adventure, or is there something else at play?
It’s hard to say, because each restaurant isn’t traditional. One might be a family home, one might be a base camp where explorers trekking the Arctic Circle stop off for a night or two, or one might be on a boat. A lot of these people created an environment in which they felt was a necessity for their livelihood in some way.

For example, Rolando in Panama (he’s in our premiere episode) opened Hacienda Mamecillo because he got, quite frankly, bored of living in the city, and he wanted to raise his family in a different kind of way-off the land, off the beaten path. A lot of times, these chefs are driven by something that isn’t just, “Hey, I want to make this restaurant at the end of the world because I think it’ll be cool.” It’s for many other reasons, whether it be for their family, for encouraging the community around them, or just because there’s a place in the middle of nowhere that people stop off at. But the common thread that I’ve picked up on is this sense of relinquishing control to “What will be, will be.” There’s beauty and freedom in that, especially when it comes to cooking.

How can relying on your environment instil a greater sense of creativity?
By the sheer fact that not everything is available. For most chefs, we can dream up an entire dish and order the product or find something similar. If it’s not in season in our state, a neighbouring state might have it. But when you don’t have it, when you are at a lack, you’re forced to think things through much more creatively, because you have to. Otherwise, what are you going to do, serve a potato as just a baked potato? No, you’ve got to really think about it. What’s that proverb? “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Svalbard
Svalbard
Svalbard

How has this experience amplified your understanding of the phrase “farm to table?”
Depending on where you are in the world, farm to table can mean a million different things. The idea is understanding where your food comes from and taking out as many middle people as you can so there’s less of a trek and it’s better for the environment. For Restaurants at the End of the World, it means a true necessity. Where else are you going to get the food in the Arctic? You can ship it from the mainland, sure, but by the time it travels an hour and a half across the Arctic, it’s frozen. In order to get the freshest fish possible, you have to hike an hour and a half to a lake, fish it yourself, and bring it back.

What was one of your favourite ingredients to learn about? How did it tell the story of a place?
It was in Svalbard with Rogier, the chef at Isfjord Radio Restaurant. He took the feeding sack out of a ptarmigan and turned it into a cocktail. He didn’t have to do that, but I guess if you are going to eat the bird, try to use all of it. I hate when people call food exotic because I’m like, food is food to somebody. It’s their normal. But that was the very first time I think I’ve ever had a feeding pouch. It tastes earthy, funky-you’re looking at it thinking, This thing is internally in an animal. And they’re picking at everything. It’s not just twigs and berries. It also contains rocks and insects that decompose. Then you see an off-brown colour-those two things coming together throw your brain for a loop. It wasn’t my favourite flavour profile, regardless of what it was, but it was a new experience, which I always appreciate.

Turner Farm
Turner Farm
Turner Farm

Which location surprised you the most?
I’m not impressed very often. I think things are exceptional and wonderful, but that wave of like, Oh my God, doesn’t come often. The way I trek through life, these are just experiences. All of them are equally impressive to me and normal to somebody else. A nice reminder was having one domestic location, a place that’s not far from where I live, to see what’s in our backyard. We can travel and pick out places on the map that are so far away, but if we just look around a little bit, there are [closer] places worth exploring that are off the beaten path and different from our everyday life. A lot of people that live in the United States, especially on the East Coast, can very easily go to North Haven, [Maine] and Turner Farm and see their little island community. That’s a really great thing to showcase as well.

From scaling a waterfall to spearfishing, what would you say was the biggest challenge you took on during this experience?
Anytime I had to get over the fear of not feeling capable of being able to do something. Yes, there’s a fear of getting hurt, and I don’t want to die-I have a wife and adult responsibilities. But no matter what television project I go into, no matter who I cook for, every guest chef dinner, the fear is always the unknown. And the fear is, Are they going to like it? Are they going to like me? Am I going to be okay? Whether that’s for this show or just general life, a lot of us worry about those things.

Were you ever jealous of these chefs, despite all the difficulties they face living and working off the grid?
I think there’s always appeal, when we live in such a modern world with every convenience available to us, in being able to shut it all down and do what you love without food critics, without Yelp opinions. You are constantly being judged in a lot of ways. I walk through a grocery store and I’m like, Oh my god, are people judging me? I’m not saying these people aren’t judged and they don’t have challenges like that, but I’m envious of the fact that they can say, “Screw it,” and just do what they want to do, how they want to do it… without the internet.

National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen
National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen
National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen

Is there a moment you shared with one of the guest chefs that made a deep impression on you, even if it didn’t make the show?
They were all so welcoming. Each episode took five or six days to film, and then I had one day off. On that day off, camera or no camera, they were all like, “Come on, I want to keep showing you things,” or, “Let’s go do this, I want to take you here.” This show is about the travel and the cuisine of a certain place, but even more so, it’s about who these people are.

There was this gentleman-God, I hope his story is told one day. I don’t want to say too much, because it’s quite a personal story, but what I took from it was that we do things for other people. We are driven by our love of other people, and honouring those that are no longer with us. Whether or not you do that in your daily life, I think it’s always really important to step outside yourself and say, “Why am I doing this? What’s the bigger purpose?” So with one of our guests-I was a sobbing mess having this conversation, looking at the sun setting over this gorgeous lake-I was reminded that we’ve got to step outside of ourselves and figure out why we do things, because otherwise, if we do it all for ourselves, it’s largely driven, I think, by ego.

How has the show impacted your own travel habits? What do you think other travellers can learn from this show?
My culinary career has seen a lot of different parts of this industry, travel included, but this experience highlighted why I love to travel in the first place. It started when I was a child, long before I realized that I was going to do this on television. As an adoptee, I wanted to travel, knowing and seeing and putting myself in other people’s shoes, because I could have ended up in a family like them. I could have been anywhere in the world. I mean, we all could have been born into any kind of family, but that, for me, is the driving force of my desire to travel.

I remember, when I was younger, I would listen to people say, “Oh, you have to travel the world to see and to do and learn.” And I was always like, “Well, I can’t. I don’t have the luxury to do that.” So I’m always wary about that. What I hope, at the very baseline, is that even if you aren’t able to go to these restaurants, or you aren’t able to go on this epic adventure, people can connect through the screen-that’s how I learned about food and other people. And then if you are able to, I hope that people go and see these fabulous people and restaurants, because it is something special. We’re all used to convenience, but the larger part of the story is the people.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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